by Lydia A. Sausa, M.S. Ed., Ph.D. candidate
CW: discussion of transphobic violence and harassment
“I felt alone and isolated. No one cared. No one really understood me and what I was going through. I loved school, but I never felt safe there because I was trans. I was threatened, followed, cornered, pushed, spit on, kicked, slapped, punched, beaten, and assaulted. I decided this is not the way I wanted to get an education and so I dropped out.”- Keisha, age 21
Trans people transgress binary gender norms. They are a diverse population and are represented among every race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation. Currently trans students, staff, and faculty face many challenges in colleges and universities due to discrimination, harassment, and violence. Schools are institutions of learning that stand for providing a safe educational and working environment for every-one, though we have failed in providing that for trans people on our campuses. As educators, students, advocates, and activists, it is time to step forward to first educate ourselves on the concerns and experiences of trans people, and then teach others in our schools what we have learned. To truly advocate for trans students and colleagues we must empower ourselves and others by identifying power imbalances, and creating opportunities to correct those power imbalances through collective action that transforms our educational institutions into safe and supportive environments.
I have known too many trans students who have been literally and figuratively beaten by ignorance and forced to drop out of school because of apathy. I have seen colleagues avoid wonderful careers in education or avoid coming out as trans, because they feared discrimination. Trans people are here. They are in our schools. They are the students in our classrooms. They are the staff and faculty members with whom we work with each day. They are our colleagues, our mentors, our friends. It is time to make some changes in our schools.
The following is a checklist of ways to improve the educational and work environments of colleges and universities for trans students, staff, and faculty.
Update Policy and Forms:
1. Include gender expression and gender identity in your official university or college nondiscrimination policies. This helps to provide a safe educational and work environment for everyone, especially in matters of protecting against violence and harassment, and discrimination in tenure, promotion, student admissions, and financial aid.
2. Be gender inclusive with all forms, including surveys, administrative forms, applications. Do not limit gender and sex categories to “male” and “female,” but also include “transgender” or “trans” for students, staff, and faculty to check off.
They may not always indicate they are trans or may check off more than one, but allow for possibilities. Another suggestion is simply to have the category say “gender identity,” and then place a long dash after it for them to fill in.
3. Create specific guidelines about how to record, document, and address issues of harassment and verbal and physical abuse dealing with gender expression or gender identity, from student to student, employee to student, employee to employee, and student to employee.
4. Develop guidelines about how to assist trans students, staff, and faculty in navigating your school system, including addressing concerns with bathrooms, locker rooms, residential living arrangements, school identification picture cards, name changes, requesting school transcripts after a name change, possible issues of harassment, etc.
Use Appropriate Language:
5. Provide workshops, guest speakers, and professional trainings to encourage students, staff, and faculty to use gender-neutral language and do not assume the sexual orientation of a trans person. For example, use parent or guardian instead of mother/ father, use partner instead of girlfriend/boyfriend.
6. Respect trans people by using appropriate pronouns for their gender expression, or simply use their preferred name. When in doubt, ask! [Some people may prefer gender neutral pronouns such as “ze” instead of he or she, and “zir” instead of his or her.]
Create a Safe Environment:
7. Include trans literature, brochures, books, magazines, art work, and posters in your lobby or office. This helps people to feel welcomed and more comfortable.
8. Be an ally to and advocate for trans people. Create an atmosphere in which derogatory remarks regarding trans people are not acceptable. Challenge put-downs and dispel myths and stereotypes about the trans community.
9. Hire openly trans people as staff and faculty who would provide valuable knowledge about trans needs and concerns, as well as help trans students, and other trans staff and faculty feel represented in your college or university.
10. Encourage role models and mentors through special peer mentoring programs, and by having openly trans staff and faculty or trans allies who are trained and designated as “safe” people to approach for information and support. This can be done for students as well as staff and faculty.
11. Establish support and discussion groups that are specific to addressing gender diversity and trans experiences.
12. Remove MEN’S and WOMEN’S restroom labels, or create additional gender inclusive restrooms. Many trans people have been harassed, even physically removed by security personnel, for entering the “wrong” bathroom. This is especially common for people who do not fit into the dichotomous gender norms of our society, such as a masculine or androgynous woman who has been mistaken as a “man” entering the WOMEN’S bath-room. To help create a safer atmosphere for trans students, staff, and faculty, universal gender inclusive RESTROOMS may be beneficial.
Increase Awareness & Provide Educational Training:
13. Take a trans sensitivity inventory of your college or university. Schedule periodic educational workshops and in-service trainings to provide important current information and assist with concerns or questions about the needs of trans people for your students, as well as your staff and faculty. Continual education is also helpful to address changes among staff and faculty, as well as the ever changing student body, and keep everyone up-to-date.
14. Ask for help from trans specific local and national organizations. Build collaborative relationships between your college and university and local centers, organizations, and support groups. If the resources at your college or university cannot meet the needs of a trans student, staff, or faculty member, put their best interests first, and refer them to someone who is better qualified or more experienced.
15. Hire specific point people to be trans resources for students, staff, and faculty. These people can be extremely advantages in assisting with concerns or questions, providing in-services or workshops for the school, and effectively dealing with everyday challenges in updating and representing a university or college on trans issues.
16. Have your campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual (LGB) Resource Center be inclusive of trans people as well. Please remember that simply adding the “T” at the end is not enough. Providing trans specific services, programs, resources, and creating a safe and welcoming space by a trained trans sensitive staff is essential for support, outreach, education, and advocacy. Encourage all LGB organizations, clubs, or school groups to be inclusive of trans people.
17. Encourage staff and faculty to include trans films, articles, books, guest speakers, and panels in their curricula to provide a place for open discussion, increased awareness, and education about the various issues affecting trans people.
18. Establish courses and encourage research which specifically address trans issues in the humanities, natural sciences, education, social sciences, and other disciplines.
19. Include information and training on trans youth issues in your college and university teacher education programs.
20. Designate resource people in your college or university to update and provide trans specific resources for students, staff, and faculty. These resources may include hotlines, listings of local and national trans organizations, listings of local support groups and medical providers who specifically service trans people, recent articles, books, and brochures. Having an accurate and current base of information is helpful for making effective referrals and attaining vital knowledge. Please make sure your personal or office libraries, as well as your college or university libraries, can provide current books and films on trans issues and experiences.
21. Fund students to attend trans specific conferences to educate themselves and encourage them to present their findings or share their information with campus organizations and others.
22. Be aware of the variety of current list serve discussion groups, web sites, and other electronic media for further information about trans people and their experiences. Also create special campus list serves as a way of providing support for students, staff, faculty and building connections to share.
23. Create a resource guide for trans students, staff, and faculty which include services, events, clubs and organizations on campus and in the local community that provide trans specific services and are trans friendly.
These are suggestions to begin implementing effective changes to improve the educational and work environments of our colleges and universities for trans students, staff, and faculty.
Establish short and long term goals and work collaboratively with trans students, staff, and faculty toward achieving each of them. Though empowerment often begins with one person, it will affect countless numbers.